I've been introducing my seven-year-old to several of Studio Ghibli offerings, such as Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, and more recently The Borrower Arrietty. I held off on showing her Spirited Away until recently because I felt some elements such as the spirit world would be too scary for her until now.
Before showing the movieto her, I explained some elements of Asian folklore (I am originally from Southeast Asia and could relate to some of the folklore underlying this story) so she could follow the story better, though this is not strictly necessary, especially for older viewers.
Spirited Away follows the adventures of 10-year-old Chihiro who together with her parents is making a move from the city to the suburbs. Chihiro is not very happy about this move, and when her parents accidentally find themselves off the beaten path on their way to their new home, she discourages them from exploring. Chihiro has a strange sense of foreboding that this new place which her father presumes to be an abandoned theme park is much more than that and she is of course proven right. Her parents are turned into pigs after gorging on food they found at this place, which turns out to be inhabited by the spirit world.
In Asian folklore, there is an emphasis on respecting old superstitions, which includes belief in the spirit world inhabited by the Gods and otherworldly creatures. When Chihiro's parents gorged on food meant for the spirits, they were being very disrespectful and so are punished accordingly. The rest of the story follows Chihiro's efforts, aided by the loyal Haku, to redeem her parents and make their escape from the malevolent witch Yubaba who rules over this world.
The animation is simply amazing and conjures up a fantastical world of odd-looking creatures (that radish spirit was just out of this world!) in an alternate world that is vividly brought to life. The animation is superior but what makes this such a memorable story is the heartfelt story with its underlying theme of respect, loyalty,friendship, trust, and sacrifice. Chihiro's relentless efforts to save her parents credibly portrays the theme of filial piety and her courage and determination make her a true heroine, serving as a great role model for children. This is a story to be enjoyed by viewers and readers of all ages. The book contains many of the artwork from the film, and the text is accessible to young, independent readers. This is a worthwhile companion book to the film!